As a minority group, widely scattered yet strongly united by our religion, we have benefited enormously from the British tradition of respect for individual rights of conscience, freedom of thought and speech, freedom of worship and the rule of law. Speech by His Highness the Aga Khan - Ismaili Community and its Contribution to the Commonwealth
Royal Commonwealth Society, Oxford, England, November 2, 1960
It gives me great pleasure to be in Oxford this evening. I am most grateful and honoured that your Society should invite me to talk about the Ismaili Community and its contribution to the Commonwealth.
Speaking as a graduate of Harvard and, I have to confess, as one who failed in English at his entrance examination, I have been warned by my British friends that I should have to tread carefully in this most venerable seat of learning.
But I am not unduly abashed. We Harvard men may lack a few hundred years of tradition, but for those of you who read Time Magazine, our girl friends never had to move their beds into the corridor when we went to see them. As you know we fight fiercely. We do not indulge in rough games like rugby, but we have learned to row boats - rather faster I gather - than Oxford can these days. Our scholarships have produced anything from Presidents to highly successful disc jockeys. Our dons may not feature on television as regularly as yours do, but we have one remarkably popular and somewhat bawdy night club singer.
I noticed the other day that one of the London papers, speculating on the subject matter of this talk, assumed that its object would be "to keep the flag flying". I am not quite sure what the writer meant by this. After all, the Commonwealth today has a great many flags. I remember this to my cost at the Installation Ceremony in Bombay three years ago when I succeeded my Grandfather as the Imam of the Ismaili Community. The dais was a mass of flags, but accidentally one of them was missing. It was completely unintended, of course, but the missing banner turned out to be the flag of India. Not unnaturally, there was quite a rumpus and from then on I have remained a staunch advocate of flying flags the more the better.
Seriously, however, the Ismaili Community owes a great deal to the concept of Commonwealth as we know it today. Just as my Grandfather was able to develop and bring forward his people under the protective wings of the British Empire, so today a large part of my Community is adapting itself, and generally flourishing, in countries which have achieved - or are about to achieve - independence within the Commonwealth.
As a minority group, widely scattered yet strongly united by our religion, we have benefited enormously from the British tradition of respect for individual rights of conscience, freedom of thought and speech, freedom of worship and the rule of law.
Such is the power of the popular press that few people know very much about the Ismailis today, except that the Aga Khan is their leader, is weighed in diamonds from time to time, owns a number of race horses and, so far as I am concerned at any rate, appears to be perpetually on the brink of matrimony.
This obsession with marriages extends even to my religious duties. No sooner had I set foot in Karachi six weeks ago, then a local newspaperman handed me a cable he had just received from his London office. It read "Rush fastest two hundred words on Aga Khan performing marriages"
The important facts may not always be so picturesque and, with all respect to my many journalist friends, they are seldom such good headline material. All the same, I think on this occasion you may find it interesting and useful if I give you some fuller information about my community.
The Ismailis today live in 22 different countries: Persia, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Kuwait in the Middle East; Afghanistan, Pakistan, Hunza, India, Burma, Malaya, and Ceylon in Asia, Kenya, Uganda, Tanganyika, Zanzibar, the Congo, South Africa, Madagascar and Portuguese Mozambique in Africa. Together with Russian Turkestan and Communist China, they number in all around 20 million. It is impossible for me to be more precise about the number as I do not have a community census, nor do the Governments hold national censuses in many of the states I have mentioned.
Ismailis are most easily divided in terms of occupation rather than language or nationality. Thus in Syria, Iran, Hunza and Afghanistan, farming is the community's principal source of income, whereas in India, Pakistan and East Africa - as indeed throughout most of Commonwealth - the Ismailis are for the most part retail traders and industrialists.
The present pattern of communal organisation in the trading section was started by my Grandfather, and I believe is largely responsible for the advanced state of that group. Without such an organisation it would have been impossible to run our banks, Insurance companies, schools, hospitals and the numerous charitable organisations such as the welfare societies, funds for widows and scholarship committees.
As this body of tradesmen grew in size and importance, my Grandfather found it necessary to set up a number of organisations responsible for the development of particular fields in community life. Thus he created a set of Councils to legislate on matters of marriage, divorce, inheritance, custody of children between separated parents and other legal questions.
If, for example, a man living in a province of Uganda wishes to be divorced, he will apply to his provincial Council. If in his opinion the Council has failed to give a satisfactory answer, the appellant can appeal to the Uganda Supreme Council - body which supervises all Uganda's Ismaili Provincial Councils. If the Supreme Council rejects the case, a further appeal can be made to the Federal Council for Africa - a body which supervises the National Supreme Councils throughout the Continent.
A final appeal, once the case has been considered by the Federal Council, can be made direct to myself as Imam. Health and education, in the shape of Hospitals, maternity homes, clinics, nursery, primary and secondary schools, are all organised through Health and Education Boards or Administrators. These institutions are being increasingly used by people outside our own community and therefore keep in close touch with government policies.
In East Africa each Supreme Council has under it an Economic Advisory Committee. The members keep a permanent eye on the economic situation of the country they belong to; they advise on businesses which are losing ground, new fields of commerce and industry, and on sound methods of business and industrial management. Somewhat similar bodies exist in India and Pakistan.
One of the schemes which has received considerable attention from the press is the "Home for All" project in East Africa. Briefly the aim was to provide every Ismaili family in Kenya, Tanganyika, Uganda and Zanzibar with a house or apartment of its own by 1960. At present over 4 million sterling in loans is tied up in this project, and between 85 and 90 per cent completion should have been achieved by the end of this year.
The question which immediately comes to mind is how, in these poor but developing countries, have such schemes become possible? The answer is that the community owns, directs and runs its own banks and investment companies in India, Pakistan, British East Africa and Burma. Shortly we hope to have another in Syria. The capital for these institutions was provided by my late Grandfather's Jubilees; the picturesque weighing ceremonies at the Golden, Diamond and Platinum Jubilees had a very practical and serious purpose.
Central institutions were created with capital invested at 2 or 3%; this capital is lent to subsidiary organisations at 4 to 5% which in turn is lent out to private individuals against accepted guarantees at 6 or 7%. The figures here are, of course, arbitrary, but you should remember that the official borrowing rates in some these countries can reach well over 10%.The principle of making available cheap money to the Community has given it very considerable commercial advantages.
One of the schemes financed on this basis is the "Homes for All" project which I have just mentioned. The central company lends locally-formed building societies the necessary capital to purchase and develop housing estates. The tenant-purchasers make a deposit with the local building corporation, and over a period of not more than 16 years, they acquire their respective houses by monthly instalments.
I have spoken about the Ismaili Community's banks and insurance companies, but have said nothing about the Imam's personal contribution. A large number of projects apart from the private organisations to which I give grants, are partly financed by the local government, partly by the Community and myself. We apply for government grants for any projects which can serve the country as a whole. If the government cannot help, then the Community and myself divide the cost equally.
To give you an idea of the extent of these institutions, we have some 60 schools in Tanganyika and more than 35 in Kenya and Uganda. They range from nursery to secondary schools which teach up to higher certificate standard. During the next 3 years in Pakistan we are planning to find places for no less than 8000 secondary school pupils.
Such is the Ismaili Community within the Commonwealth today. What are the problems which confront us and how can my Community play its part in solving them? The age in which we live has been called all sorts of names. We speak of the Atomic Age, the Space Age, the Jet Age and, here in England at least, the New Elizabethan Age. All these descriptions convey a strong impression of speed and change. Yet one or two news items I read from time to time make me wonder whether in fact we have really changed to such an extent.
I read, for instance, that three Frenchmen recently had their left thumbs cut off and were paid compensation by the state social security system of between 700 and 2000 pounds. This reminded me of a trick French soldiers once used of cutting off their right index or trigger finger to avoid being called up in the Napoleonic armies.
Human nature does not alter very much, and nor do human needs, however strongly the winds of change may blow. The same is true of nations. The search is always for a workable ideology and rising standards of living.
It seems to me that many countries in the Commonwealth, and particularly those in which my Community live are experiencing an age-old conflict. The pull of the past, the longing to rediscover grassroots, overgrown by alien civilisations, clash with the dazzling promise of material progress in the future. Yet this material progress can only be obtained from the Western world whose values they do not entirely accept nor comprehend.
While working feverishly at increasing their national production, raising standards of living, and applying modern methods in industrialisation and in agriculture, most of the countries I have visited during the last 3 years have been making an equally determined effort to recreate their national history, to bring to light their own traditions and customs and to make them a living part of a new national life.
You will find this tendency not only in the period prior to independence, when countries are emerging from colonial status, but even more strongly afterwards. A country seeks not only the right to govern itself but feels the need to create a national personality drawn from roots of an earlier growth than those of the colonial period.
It is this stupendous problem of harnessing modern technological progress, if you like - the Space Age - to a national personality still evolving and simultaneously seeking to escape its immediate western past that I would like to emphasise tonight.
During the past three years I have been fortunate enough in visiting my various communities, to travel some 300,000 miles through a large part of Africa, Asia and the Middle East.
I have returned from these travels with a very firm conviction that the western world has an extremely difficult role to play. Here one naturally wishes to do everything one can to stop the inroads of communism. At the same time it is necessary to avoid the trap of being accused of giving independence whilst simultaneously exerting pressures, both material and cultural, to ensure that these new nations follow the western way of life as closely as possible.
During my travels I have had plenty of opportunity to confirm that it is the discontented and the disgruntled who are the most liable to turn to communism, and not those who are benefitting from a rising standard of living. The pressure of a rapidly increasing population on limited resources of land and food is one of the most formidable obstacles to stable Government in Asia and Africa today. But it would be equally wrong to assume that the mere satisfaction of material needs will do the trick. Look at Iraq, a country with one of the highest living standards of the Middle East - or Japan. Both are seriously threatened by communist infiltration.
What we have to do, it seems, is to prevent large numbers of relatively uneducated people from falling victims to one ideology, without at the same time imposing our own. This is not easy because while each nation is gradually developing its own political philosophy there is bound to be a vacuum. One of the symptoms of this is the so-called neutralism of the Afro-Asian countries. Arab and African nationalism may be playing the same role. As Mr. Macmillan, President Eisenhower and Mr. Khruschev have discovered, these groups require very careful handling.
Another example of where western ideas can sometimes go astray can be seen in the desire to persuade these new nations to accept a democratic political system.
The roots of democracy are essentially Western and not of Eastern origin. Even in the West one has to admit that they are not unchallenged. Except for the United States, Great Britain, Switzerland and Scandinavia, there are very few countries today where democracy can be said to be strong and safe.
Even so, I am convinced that a democratic way life is both possible and acceptable to many of the countries of Africa, Asia and Middle East. I would go further still and say that such a system is eminently desirable for the newly independent countries since it allows them to develop their personalities from the roots rather than having them dictated from the top.
But, of course, there are bound to be difficulties into putting democratic principles into practice, and I am sure it is important for Western countries not to be too dismayed or shocked if democracy sometimes falls by the wayside or takes on new forms in the early years.
We have to remember the completely different circumstances in which democracy is being attempted - the very small annual income of the people, the low rate of literacy and poor communications generally are only few of the handicaps. Another factor which is often overlooked, but which seems immensely important to me is that the well-established democracies have built up over the years, a whole series of checks and balances on the power of the Executive Government.
The American Constitution, of course, was expressly drawn up with this purpose in mind, and although the British Parliamentary system is more vulnerable, it is protected in the long run by a whole series of public and private groups such as the independent press, radio and television, the labour and employers' unions and an independent judiciary, all of which exercise an unceasing watch on behalf of the individual against the power of the State. The very fact that the interests of these groups are more often contradictory than common has forced Governments in search of votes to pursue relatively moderate and stable policies.
In the newly independent nations which I have observed during the past 3 years, groups of this kind have not yet had time to develop. Where they do exist, their leadership is often young and inexperienced, and tends to come into direct conflict with the Government of the day. As a result they all too often find themselves penalised, circumscribed or nationalised out of existence. In other cases, for sheer lack of trained personnel, the central Governments swallow all the available talent and there is little left for anyone else.
This, I think, is one of the principal reasons why, in many of the ex-colonial countries, there is an increasing tendency towards a highly centralised form of democracy and when even this has failed, its replacement by a single party or semi-military regime. These, it should be remembered, are not necessarily dictatorships in the communist or fascist sense. Very often as in Pakistan or Tanganyika today, they have the support of an overwhelming majority of the people.
One of the most important and urgently felt needs of these newly independent countries is for qualified civil servants and for a middle and professional class with sufficient money and qualifications to begin the process of industrialization. To build up this middle class of civil servants, traders and professional men, is probably the most effective way of providing stability and gaining time while the ideological vacuum to which I referred earlier, is gradually replaced by a soundly-based national tradition. It is also, I hope, one of the major contributions which my own Community can make to many parts of the Commonwealth. It is true that in some parts of the Commonwealth, the economic power of the Asian is resented, but speaking for my Community, which has taken immense trouble to identify itself with the various nations of its adoption, I believe this to be a passing phase.
It seems to me by no means impossible, that the Ismailis can develop into a commercial group which virtue of its very cohesion and its international connections will exercise a strong and beneficial influence on Government policies, both in the cause of democracy and of economic progress.
In as much as the Ismailis exert any political influence at all, they have generally worked in support of Government in power. My Grandfather and I have always taught them above all to be good citizens and play a full part in the national life of their country.
In East Africa, for example, this policy already had a marked effect on the Ismailis' relations with the emerging African majority. They are I think, both respected and trusted. Often from very humble origins, leading members of the Community, by the methods I already described to you, have worked themselves into positions of both affluence and influence. In the current period of transition, they are a considerable force for moderation and stability.
As more of these countries achieve independence and when they have had time to settle down, I believe that the commercial and administrative qualities of the good Ismaili can be deployed on an international and inter-Commonwealth level.
Whilst we naturally give priority to the training of our own people for responsible positions in our institutions, we have also seen the advantage of seeking the assistance of Western minds and Western techniques whenever they can help. The Aga Khan Hospital in Nairobi is an interesting example of how this policy can benefit not only our own Community, but the whole of East Africa and ultimately, I hope, the Commonwealth as well.
Based on the most up-to-date hospital methods employed in America and Western Europe, it is the first in Kenya to open its doors to all races, the first to start a qualified nurses' training course for girls of all communities, the first to employ a completely multiracial staff and the first to institute an insurance scheme which helps to overcome the crippling cost of modern medical care in countries where Government assistance is desperately restricted by lack of finance.
It will not be long, I hope, before this Hospital also undertakes important research work in tropical and other diseases. You can see, therefore, how easily the example of this hospital can spread to other parts of the Commonwealth. Already it has admitted Ismaili and African patients from as far afield as Somalia and Pakistan.
As Muslims, we naturally try to help other Muslims. The East African Muslim Welfare Society to which my community and I give substantial aid, helps to provide schools and mosques for the African Muslims. I am convinced that our social, educational and medical institutions, all of which are becoming progressively less communal in their outlook and increasingly integrated with the life of the nation as a whole, will play a growing part in each national's cultural and economic development.
The greatest need among the new nations of the world is for the latest and best in the technologies of peace. Britain is among the top two or three nations who have developed nuclear energy for peaceful purposes. In some respects, I understand, she leads the world.
Again I read recently of Mr. R. A. Butler opening a sea-water distillation plant in Guernsey which provides half a million gallons of drinking water for the Island's reservoirs. Imagine what a similar process might do in terms of irrigation for the parched coastal area of Pakistan. It is obvious today that Britain cannot compete with the huge industrial loans arranged by America, Russia or through the United Nations. No one expects her to. But if she could concentrate the limited resources she has to spare for the Commonwealth on intensely practical and quickly productive projects such as I have just mentioned, I feel sure the impact would be enormous.
If possible, projects of this sort should be coordinated with a number of technical and scientific scholarships in England. The Commonwealth graduate would then return to his own country and find an immediate use for the training he has acquired. It is sad to have to report that all too often at present, Commonwealth students reach a higher level of training in England than they can make use of when they get home.
I have put forward these suggestions rather haphazardly. But they arise from what I have seen myself during the past three years in Asia and Africa. I hope therefore, you will feel they are worth considering.
As I have said, I am a sincere supporter and admirer of all that the Commonwealth stands for today. It is a living example of the British genius for compromise and adaptability in the swiftly changing circumstances of the 20th Century. But I think you would be wise to face the fact now that the Commonwealth cannot survive indefinitely on its own mystique.
It must continue to be buttressed by the more lasting cement of self-interest. The successors to Harrow educated Mr. Nehru or Sandhurst-trained President Ayub Khan will not see things in quite the same way as their predecessors.
In short, I believe, that Britain will serve the Commonwealth best in the material sense if she concentrates her limited resources on technical projects of immediate and practical value. And if she hopes to win the ideological battle she should not be afraid to encourage the natural flowering of different national personalities within the Commonwealth. They will not always follow British precedents, but in their very diversity will be born a new and lasting strength.
Such strength in diversity is a quality which can be of immense value in the modern world whose problems are less and less national and increasingly global, before long even inter-terrestrial, in scope.
The Commonwealth's most striking quality is its variety of race, colour, religion and philosophic outlook. If this diverse group of nations begins of its own accord to work and act together in solving the problems which, due to the advance of science have become universal problems, its influence for peace will be out of all proportion to its physical strength. In the rich variety of the Commonwealth lies its greatest promise to mankind. It is also, I think, the supreme challenge to its future.
His Speech to the Commonwealth Press Union
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